Features – Computer Training Advice for the Law Firm

Daryl Teshima is Director of Practice Systems for Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

For most law firms, the most difficult component of the computer system to upgrade is the attorneys and staff. Getting people to learn new computer tricks is a much more difficult task than upgrading the operating system or operating hardware. There is no magic installation program, chip, or other quick fix that can bring law offices up to speed with the current technology. For that, old-fashioned, face-to-face training remains the best option.

Nevertheless, training is often overlooked when implementing new technology. Most planners tend to focus on the nuts and bolts of the hardware or the features of a particular software package. The ultimate success of a new technology rollout, however, is measured by the increase in efficiency and productivity of the personnel. What good is a new state-of-the-art computer if its user does not know how to take advantage of it? Why buy a sports car for an attorney who is interested only in driving something with an automatic transmission and lots of power steering?

For many law firms the “t” word has become the equivalent of diet and exercise. Everyone gives lip service to its importance, yet few support their words with action. Most attorneys feel that they do not need training or that they cannot lose billable hours attending a training session. The irony is that by skipping training, time-challenged attorneys will probably lose more billable hours fumbling with the new technology than they would have lost by taking a class.

There are a number of ways to combat the no-show problem. Using these methods, a firm’s technology professionals can significantly raise not only attendance but also the training program’s effectiveness.

Carrots and Sticks

One way to get people into training rooms is to provide them with an immediate reward. Often, the technology is its own reward. This technique is particularly successful when introducing new computers and hardware. When Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher replaced the old desktops of more than 600 attorneys for new laptops, the firm would not issue a laptop until each attorney had completed his or her training. This same technique also can be applied to online services such as Lexis, Westlaw, and the Internet.

If the technology alone fails to generate attendance, then let your users eat cake. It is hard to underestimate the magnetic power of food. Nothing elaborate is required. Just remember to have the firm pick up the tab.

Perhaps the most important factor in getting users to attend class is the voice of firm management. The firm’s computer professionals need to persuade management to make everyone an offer they cannot refuse. If possible, motivate the management committee or a powerful partner to make training mandatory. “You have to have some muscle,” recounts Bruce Johnson, IS director of New York’s Robinson, Silverman, Pearce, Aronsohn & Berman. “You need someone in the partnership to defend” the training requirement.

At many firms, however, the words “mandatory” and “attorney” do not mix. If firm culture dictates a less authoritarian approach, the invitation can still come from management, not the IS department. At Dallas-based Cowles & Thompson, IS Manager Jake Reichenstein says, “Management took a positive approach. The executive committee sent out a letter that said, ‘Everyone will go to class.’ Out of 100 attorneys, all but 8 attended both classes.”

Management support is also critical. At Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, all newly hired attorneys and employees must attend a day of technical training before they receive a network password. This technical orientation provides a basic overview of the law firm’s computer system and resources.

A common mistake in many computer training programs is to try to teach everything about a particular program or system except how to use it. Too often, training simply catalogs the technology’s endless bells and whistles and omits the more knotty practical issues of how the new system is supposed to help people do their work. After attending a few tedious gee-whiz sessions, users will avoid training as much as possible.

A more effective approach is to adapt the training to the users, not the technology. For staff, the training should focus on how the technology will perform daily tasks efficiently. For attorneys, the emphasis should be on ease of use and how the change will help their practice. Special attention should also be paid to senior partners, many of whom feel uncomfortable around technology. Grouping staff and first-year associates with technology-challenged partners will often increase the level of technophobia that these partners already have. Whenever possible, be sensitive to the needs of those who pay for the new technology.

Another successful training approach is to use task-based training. Organize each training session around the tasks that users perform. For example, when training users on the latest version of Microsoft Word or Corel WordPerfect, show the steps needed to create documents that the user creates every day. Reinforce this approach by providing a cookbook of common firm documents that provide step-by-step instructions. This technique helps users apply what they learned. In short, trainers must learn the new system well, know what needs to be taught, and develop lessons.

One component of a successful training program that IS people often overlook is the creation of a positive buzz about the technology. Before the implementation, showcase the technology’s benefits. This can be accomplished with the tried-and-true dog-and-pony show or staff newsletter articles that give a sneak preview of the changes to come. Effective marketing can spark interest and good word of mouth. At North Carolina-based Poyner & Spruill, IT Director Ellen Kinsinger marketed a systemwide upgrade by generating a newsletter, throwing parties, and speaking at partner meetings. “The firm generated so much enthusiasm that attorneys asked why it was taking so long for the conversion to get started,” says Kinsinger. A pilot group also can serve as a good marketing tool if the group is composed of representative and respected users. They can not only spread the word about the technology’s benefits but also provide critical feedback to ensure that the technology will work the way that the users want it to.

One way to sabotage a training session is to schedule it near the end of the day. Eager learners will be either too tired or distracted by filing deadlines to concentrate on learning a new technology. Training needs to be flexible in order to accommodate the hectic schedules of staff and attorneys.

Many firms are experimenting with evening training to boost attendance. Johnson says that during the Robinson, Silverman’s recent upgrade from WordPerfect 5.1 to WordPerfect 8, “classes at night [were a] key to success.” The New York firm’s evening classes (6 to 7 p.m.) were well attended. Other firms are offering voluntary weekend training sessions. To encourage weekend attendance, these firms are also offering day care and other events for the user’s family.

Self-service training is another alternative that has the benefit of around-the-clock availability. With interactive tutorials and workbooks, users can learn at their own pace and at a time most convenient to them.

Forget Alphabetical Order

Nothing is more frustrating for users than attending training sessions that are either too complex or too simple. Rather than grouping users by last name, department, or floor, group them by skill level and focus the content accordingly. Make beginner classes shorter to minimize user frustration. Advanced users may benefit more from a quick overview with plenty of time for questions and answers. Many users learn more effectively with an informal approach.

Finally, face the fact that computer systems and applications are too complex to be taught in one training session. In addition, many users need hands-on experience to learn how to use the technology. For this reason, a successful program should offer additional resources and training after the initial technology rollout. The easiest way to offer this to users is to provide them with a library of technical resources, workbooks, and tutorials. Many firms have found intranets ideal for this purpose. An intranet training program places answers a few mouse clicks away. Follow-up training workshops are also helpful, especially for tackling technology issues that arise after the implementation.

Additional training also can be handled on a voluntary basis. Some firms promote brown bag user groups that meet periodically during lunch. Power users usually lead these groups by discussing how to maximize the firm’s existing technology.

Whatever the approach, the most important lesson to remember is to tailor training to a law firm’s particular needs and idiosyncrasies. By experimenting with a variety of techniques, a firm can create a training program that will transform computers from glorified typewriters to critical tools in delivering cost-effective legal services to clients.

Posted in: Features, Legal Technology, Training